Lett makes appeal to Rockdale BOC for support of Newton homeless shelter

CONYERS -- The executive director of a struggling homeless shelter in Newton County made an appeal for support before the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners Tuesday morning.

Clara Lett told commissioners at their regular meeting that nearly half of the clients at Garden of Gethsemane homeless shelter in Covington are from Rockdale County.

"I come this morning to just encourage Rockdale as one of the counties that we serve as far as the homeless population," Lett said. "We have over 45 percent of people who come from this county. I want to encourage this county and the citizens of Rockdale to come to the rescue of the shelter."

Lett said the shelter, located at 7133 Turner Lake Circle, is "one or two checks away from being homeless."

"The shelter is pleading with the community to help us with funding through the churches and other organizations," said Lett. "Every person that comes from Rockdale, Newton, Morgan, Walton or Jasper county is referred by an agency."

A list of 15 Newton County agencies and more than a dozen agencies and organizations in Rockdale County that refer clients to the shelter in Covington was presented at the shelter's board of directors meeting last Wednesday. Referring agencies in Rockdale included Rockdale Emergency Relief, United Fund, Project ReNeWal, Rockdale Mental Health, Rockdale Department of Family and Children Services, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Conyers Police Department, Rockdale County Sheriff's Office, Rockdale Medical Center, Rockdale Parole Office, Rockdale County School Homeless Liaison and various churches.

Lett said that none of the agencies contributed financially to the shelter, with the exception of a few churches.

The shelter faced closure earlier this month when it could not pay a past due utility bill of more than $5,000. Two board members volunteered to donate money to cover the bill and the shelter has remained open.

Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston made a personal appeal to the community to come to the aid of the shelter and set up a bank account where donations could be made. Donations can be dropped off at any branch of Newton Federal Bank or made via PayPal on the shelter's website at www.rainbowcommuniyctr.org.

While the immediate crisis was resolved, Johnston said there's a much bigger issue to tackle: the organizational structure at the shelter.

If operations were properly handled, "We wouldn't be having this discussion," Johnston said earlier this month. He added that the shelter was given a 30-day notification that utilities were due, but there was no action, and there should be a contingency plan in such situations. He also said the shelter has been late on utility bills in the past. The city of Covington changed the shelter's status from commercial to residential, which carries a lower utility charge. Bills in the past have been as high as $8,000 a month.

Johnston said someone needs to be brought in to handle the business side of the shelter -- accounting, grant writing -- and day-to-day operations, leaving working with shelter residents to Lett.

A local couple volunteered last week to assist with a financial and management review of the shelter, and another volunteer offered to draw up a strategic plan for the non-profit. The shelter board did not take action on either offer.

The shelter, which typically relies on grants and donations, has seen much of its grant funding dry up for one reason or another. Monthly operating expenses for the shelter are around $7,500.

The Covington Housing Authority, which owns the property on Turner Lake Circle where the shelter is located, reduced monthly rent from $3,000 to $500 in 2011. According to a document provided by the Housing Authority, the shelter has not paid rent since February. The shelter has paid $16,000 in rent since 2009, according to the document, and owes more than $69,000.

Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.